|Pressure on Mosaica to improve Muskegon Heights schools growing, documents show|
By: Lynn Moore
|September 17, 2013|
|If Mosaica Education Inc. wants to keep operating Muskegon Heights schools, it has a lot of work to do this year -- including significantly improving student achievement.
Muskegon Heights officials expressed concerns early last year about the for-profit charter school company that is operating the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System. If a list of concerns isn't addressed, the contract to operate the charter school district could be revoked after this school year, documents obtained by MLive and the Muskegon Chronicle show.
Among issues Muskegon Heights Public Schools Emergency Manager Donald Weatherspoon said must be addressed are student achievement, training of school staff, curriculum design, school safety and assessment of student needs, according to correspondence between the public school district and Mosaica that were obtained through Freedom of Information Act.
As the school year came to an end last spring, Weatherspoon wrote in a May 8 letter of his deep concerns about Mosaica's first year, threatening to revoke the charter contract without "100 percent compliance."
"Significant progress must occur if this historic partnership is to continue," he wrote to the charter district's board president, adding that Mosaica's performance has been "far less than satisfactory."
Mosaica was contracted to operate the public school district's four schools in July 2012 after the district was turned into a charter school district by Weatherspoon. With the district millions of dollars in debt and many students' academic scores alarmingly low, Weatherspoon decided to wipe the slate clean and open the nation's first all-charter school district.
The Muskegon Heights Board of Education contracted with the three-member Muskegon Heights Public School Academy board to operate the school district. The academy board, in turn, contracted with Mosaica.
Trinell Scott, president of the board of education, said she's "somewhat" happy with Mosaica.
Arthur Scott, president of the academy board – and no relation to Trinell Scott -- said he is not pleased with Mosaica's performance to date. But, he said he believes the charter district "turned the corner" late last year.
"We started to identify where we were going in terms of academic excellence," he said. "I think the staff finally got themselves acclimated to the community."
Documents show that at least since January, there has been considerable pressure put on Mosaica and the charter board to improve performance. An agreement was reached this past spring that students this school year on average must increase their academic growth by 1.25 years. In a May 8 letter to Arthur Scott, Weatherspoon noted that students had one year of academic growth in 2012-13.
"While this growth may be acceptable for a kindergartner, it does nothing to decrease the gap for those already in higher grades with gaps in proficiency from two to five years in grade levels ... This is unacceptable," Weatherspoon wrote.
Weatherspoon contends in the letter that during contract negotiations with Mosaica, students' academic struggles were made clear. "No one should have been surprised at the extent or seriousness of the educational status of students," he wrote.
But John Q. Porter, president of Mosaica Turnaround Partners, said it was difficult to know exactly how far behind students were when some had been passed to the next grade level though they were three or four grades behind. He said some students who had flunked out showed up to school without past records.
Porter, who specializes in turning around struggling schools, was brought in mid-year to help at Muskegon Heights. He said it takes between three and five years to turn schools around.
"I think people should look at why we were here in the first place," Porter said. "The school district for years was failing, not just financially but academically. I think everyone has an urgency that we want to fix it overnight. This turnaround doesn't happen overnight."
Mosaica CEO Michael Connelly, in responding to Weatherspoon's May 8 letter, said the one-year growth in 2012-13 is "essentially double the previous average growth for these same students." That, he said, is a "dramatic improvement."
Nevertheless, Arthur Scott said that if Muskegon Heights students don't achieve 1.25 years growth this year, "consequences will be with Mosaica, period."
When asked if that would involve looking for another firm to replace Mosaica, he said "there would be some intense discussion in terms of where we go from here."
Porter said it was a mammoth task for Mosaica simply to open the school doors in September 2012, less than two months after Mosaica was awarded the contract to operate the district. The entire staff had to be hired, school buildings had to be repaired and procedural and documentation requirements had to be worked out with the state, which never before had to regulate an entire charter school district.
"Just the whole administration of getting a school started to me was a major task," Porter said. "Was it a smooth task? No. Were there hiccups throughout the year? No question. Getting staff as late as we did, getting them culturized to the environment they were in and expecting that to go smoothly – well, that should not have been expected."
Staff turnover was an issue, especially in leadership positions at the high school, Porter said.
Connelly addressed staff turnover in the May 31 letter to Arthur Scott. He said turnover was exacerbated by the limited time Mosaica had to hire staff as well as recruitment of its newly-hired staff by other school districts that "created major staffing challenges."
"Muskegon Heights was a district without a history of focus on academics or discipline; identifying screening and training teachers to work in this environment on the scale of this endeavor was an unprecedented challenge (and by no means an exact science)," he wrote. "In addition, we must contend with the fact that some of the surrounding districts appear to target the most experienced teachers we had recruited."
Weatherspoon in May questioned staffing decisions, saying "Mosaica may not have made the best choices with regard to administrative staff" and hiring of teaching staff without proper teaching credentials. Mosaica was fined more than $90,000 by the Michigan Department of Education for having improperly certified teachers.
"These problems have been exacerbated by the continued hiring of staff that do not appear to possess either the skill sets or experience necessary," he wrote.
After the end of the last school year, the district did not renew contracts of 14 staff members, Mosaica officials reported.
There were other issues that complicated Mosaica's first year. Weatherspoon said that pupil records had not been kept up to date by former Muskegon Heights staff. Some transcripts were even tracked to a former employee's home, he said.
"That begs the question as to why this individual took them home," Weatherspoon said. "Why this individual thought this was legal or proper, I have no idea."
Mosaica officials acknowledge they were unprepared to serve the special education population identified by the previous school administration. Weatherspoon in his May 8 letter noted that Muskegon Heights was "seriously out of compliance" with state and federal requirements before Mosaica even arrived on the scene.
However, he wrote that Mosaica was made aware of the problem during contract negotiations and its initial response was "marred by inadequate or poorly qualified staffing, and what has been perceived as a reactive rather than proactive approach to the issue."
While Mosaica has changed staff and procedures "to eliminate some past missteps," the delivery of special education services to qualified students is "of utmost importance and failure to do so will be a violation of ... the parties' charter contract," Weatherspoon wrote.
Connelly in his May 31 letter agreed that special education staff initially hired "were not adequate," explaining that that was due in part to the short time span for hiring staff.
Mosaica brought in its national special education director to help get things on track and turned to the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District for help. This year, it named Glenda Robinson-Scott, its former principal of Martin Luther King Elementary, as its new special education director in Muskegon Heights.
Notes from a March meeting involving Weatherspoon, Arthur Scott and Mosaica officials indicate that in September 2012 there were 247 individual special education plans that had not been updated by the previous school administration. By the end of February, Mosaica had updated all but 32.
Porter said that Mosaica encountered "a great deal of issues" related to special education, including staffing problems. But he said it has worked through those problems and is working toward more inclusion of students in regular classrooms. In the past, teachers may have seen special education as a way to get rid of problem students, who were labeled and placed in separate classes "for life," he said.
Weatherspoon said in an interview last month he believes too many children in the district were labeled special education – more than 20 percent rather than the average of 13 percent to 15 percent – and that that may have come as the result of pressure from parents seeking additional government funding for children with special needs.
"It was easier for the district to put a child in special education because they didn't want to deal with the fight," he said.
Weatherspoon said he believes Mosaica has since made "great strides" in improving its special education services.
The correspondence shows that Weatherspoon has focused a lot of attention on Mosaica's curriculum and how it's been taught. He noted in his May 8 letter that the MAISD and the Michigan Department of Education were involved in an ongoing review of Mosaica's curriculum.
"It appears there may have been some difficulty, not only in the preparation of its curriculum, but also in the dissemination of its components to classrooms and training of instructors in its proper implementation," Weatherspoon wrote, adding that there are concerns that could have negatively impacted student achievement scores.
He warned that the charter school system at that time was not meeting curriculum requirements in its contract with the board of education.
Weatherspoon demanded what's known as "curriculum mapping" that shows down to individual lesson plans how curriculum will be taught. After initially indicating they didn't know what Weatherspoon wanted, Mosaica officials eventually developed the mapping, which is in place this year, correspondence shows. Porter said the curriculum mapping will be very helpful for new teachers and for teacher coaching.
Not met with as much enthusiasm was Weatherspoon's contract with learning.com – a student achievement assessment firm Weatherspoon said would help track each individual's progress. Porter said learning.com uses student assessments other than what Mosaica uses, but that Weatherspoon wanted something independent.
"We've just got to work through it," Porter said last month.
Arthur Scott responded "that should already be in place by now. That's the conflict I'm seeing."
Weatherspoon also indicated in his May 8 letter to Arthur Scott that safety and security of staff and parents must continue to be a priority. Notes from a June meeting between Weatherspoon, Scott and Mosaica officials indicate Mosaica classroom management had been brought under control in the high school. Officials have said that surveillance cameras Mosaica installed in high school classrooms have helped with that. But at that meeting, Mosaica officials indicated the middle school "is a work in progress."
Porter said security ties directly with the level of instruction that is occurring, and that the district is working on an anti-bullying grant to address that issue. A new uniform requirement at the high school is expected to help identify outside trouble-makers and Weatherspoon said the district is working with the police to step up patrols outside the schools.
Arthur Scott said he believes the new principal at the middle school, Chinedu Ohan, has changed "the whole atmosphere" there this year.
"The kids just seem to cling to this guy," Scott said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Such connection with the community is another concern discussed over and over again, correspondence shows.
Mosaica President Gene Eidelman referenced the stress of operating in the "fishbowl that is the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System" in a letter he wrote to Muskegon Heights Public Schools attorney Gary Britton in January. He described the "vicious and unfounded attacks" against the charter district from some in the community and the "poisonous vitriol" from some "far less knowledgeable."
"In a world where everyone has access to the megaphone that social media and the Internet represent, it can be frustrating to play 'whack-a-mole' as irresponsible accusations are levied and when it's better to respond to naysayers through deeds rather than words," Eidelman wrote. "We are confident that anyone who knows what things were like in years past – and compares them ... to what is happening in those four schools today – will conclude that the progress that has been achieved in just four months is extraordinary."
In his May 8 letter, Weatherspoon referenced "numerous discussions" about the need to improve "community interface." He said members of the community, and the state, are closely watching what happens in the Heights.
"Admittedly there is some statewide interest in seeing this experiment fail," Weatherspoon wrote. "Clearly, the best response is to create a learning environment that is exceptional, performance that is above the norm, and a transparency that opens all facets of the (district) to public scrutiny."
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